This past weekend I went to the Midwest Horse Fair where I discovered Jec Ballou, one of the clinicians who focuses on horse fitness and classical training. Her perspective and exercises were so refreshing and very applicable to therapeutic riding, I believe. She wrote Equine Fitness and 101 Western Dressage Exercises, both of which I have and highly recommend for ideas of exercise patterns to use in lessons than can also benefit your horses, and horse fitness ideas to incorporate into your horse training program.
The main point in all her seminars was that repetitive movement with overwork can cause muscle tension and inflammation and slower recovery in the horse, such as when drilling patterns and pushing for more more more. She focused instead on patterns that help the horse learn on his own how to use his body correctly, working in intervals so the horse does not do the same repetitive moment so long his muscles can’t handle it, and doing exercises, calisthenics and gymnastics work to release tension and train new better patterns of movement.
Her exercises gave me inspiration for new patterns to use with therapeutic riding students, and I hope are ones that will also benefit the horse, regardless of the rider (though I’d think the exercises are more beneficial with a balanced rider than an unbalanced one). I have listed them below, most have a brief explanation of the setup and benefits to the horse. Don’t drill the exercises, rather work in intervals, such as doing the exercise 1 or 2 times then taking a break (walk somewhere else) then come back to do it again, which gives the muscles times to relax and reengages the horse (and rider’s!) mind. These are just from my notes from the clinics, the exercises are explained more fully and with the correct spacing in her book 101 Western Dressage Exercises, along with her training philosophy, and way more exercises!
Snake Over Poles
- Place several poles in a straight line and weave or zig-zag over them, progressively add more loops
- Horse benefits: Stepping over poles engage the hind and stifle. Ride over them at an angle to encourage stepping out across the pole, opening the chest.
- Place 7ish poles all over the arena randomly, then ride them randomly, straight and at an angle over the poles, using all of the poles in arena.
- Horse benefits: Prevents repetitive walk or trot motion, keeps the horse thinking, helps the horse organize is body, relaxes him over the topline naturally by nature of the poles, accesses both postural and gymnastic muscles
- Rider benefits: Makes the rider think ahead
- Place 3 poles side by side, a few feet apart. Ride straight through one pair, halt just past them, side step until you’re in front of the next pair, then back up.
- Backing rocks and loosens their lumbar sacral joint.
20 Meter Circle Over Poles
- Ride a circle going over each pole. Count the strides between each pole. Aim to get the same amount of strides between each pole. Counting strides like a metronome helps. Look to your pole then turn before you reach it. Then add more or less strides.
- Horse benefit: This creates rhythm, and even circles.
- Rider benefit: learn rhythm, work on counting, planning ahead
20 Meter Circle 10 Meter Circle
- Set up 4 cones 10 steps away from the center of the circle.
- Ride a 20 meter circle around all the cones, then a 10 meter circle to the middle and back. Take a break, repeat
Big Circle, Wavy Circle
- Set up a 20 meter circle (10 steps from center) with more than 4 cones
- Ride a large circle around the cones. Then ride the circle weaving the cones, on a wavy line. Then alternate back to a regular circle, and so one.
- Horse benefits: The wavy line helps them stabilize a wobbly and disorganized pelvis. Alternating allows them to refresh forward energy so you have something to work with on the wavy line.
- Set up 4 ground poles on a straight line, end to end, the ends a few feet apart.
- Ride a small serpentine between the poles, through the gaps. Reverse, then ride a small serpentine over the poles. You can ride the serpentines straight at first, then progress toward diagonally cross the poles more obliquely.
- Horse benefits: Obliquely crossing the poles opens up and recruits the thoracic muscles, stepping over poles engages hind legs
Stretch & Climb
- Place 4 poles slightly far apart to encourage stretching, leave some space, then 4 poles normally spaced but slightly raised. Ride at a walk, then a trot. Do both directions.
- Horse should stretch over poles, then slow down, then elevate over poles.
- Rider should slow horse down after stretches over poles, and look up.
Step Over Pole
- Set up a pole raised on one end high up on a barrel or bale.
- Walk as slowly as possible over the highest part the horse is able to and each time trying to go higher
- Horse benefits: causing him to use and flex his hind limbs, recruiting the thoracic sling which causes lift
Turn on the Forehand
- Turn on the haunches for 7-10 sec, then walk forward free and straight for a break, halt, and repeat. Horse should get looser and chew because their undercarriage relaxes. Do this 3x a day. Does he cross his hind legs the same each direction?
- Horse benefits: Recruits the inner hind leg muscles that get sore and tight from lateral work. It targets the inner leg muscles, loosens the back, and helps with symmetry.
- This can be a part of your horse’s warmups before riding, or with a rider.
Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgment!